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Occupy Yourself! [guest post]

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This post comes from Sarah Vekasi, MDiv. Sarah is a member of the network of trained facilitators of The Work That Reconnects, created by Joanna Macy. She is currently serving as an eco-chaplain in rural North Carolina. You can learn more about her work here:

I received the following email update from Sarah on October 5th, and loved it so much that I asked her if I could share it with you here. It’s long, so this is Part 1 of 2… I’ll post the last half in a few days.


More than just the leaves are changing these days, and our leaves have gone from green to bright oranges and red.  Young people, older folks, and all of us in between are beginning to speak up in all sorts of ways.

Do you know also about the Occupations of Wall Street in New York City and now all across America? I have been participating in the Occupy Asheville general assemblies throughout this past week, so I decided I wanted to write a letter to all of you about how eco-chaplaincy can and does work in these moments of mobilizing and change.

Groups of people are mobilizing in cities and towns throughout America and holding general assemblies to discuss their relationship to living in these times of global crisis under the banner that “we are the 99%.” Why? One reason I understand is a deep and vast need to connect, to be heard, to hear and break through the alienation and pervasive suffering permeating the times.

The slogan “I am the 99%” follows up with “and so are you.” There are people all over America are posting photos on blogs, through news channels and Facebook with a short hand-written story of their situation followed by “I am the 99%.” For example,

I began working when I was 13 years old and made $6.50/hour plus tips in 1992. Now, after four years of college, two years in a monastery, and three years in grad school I am under-employed through a non-profit I run, was paid $8.00/hour as a barista last year, and struggle to make ends meet. I am not sure I can ever have children since I don’t know how I would support them. I am the 99%.

How are you a part of the 99%?

I am not sure there is actually anyone out of that “99%.” Wealthy, poor, middle class, the radiation from Fukushima is everywhere, the water from Appalachia feeds half of the population of the US, and the decisions that have created the system now collapsing throughout the globe don’t seem to be exactly in anyone’s control. I know there are many conditions that have created the present situation, the student debt and unemployment, the massive deployments and lack of affordable health care, and still I am not in the business of pinpointing any exact cause because it seems a lot more like themes brought about by systemic greed, hatred and delusion to me.

I love that these protests did not begin with “demands” or a list of objectives, something the mainstream media is deriding and dismissing it for. There is brilliance to opening up a space which says, things aren’t right in my life, how about yours? What needs are not being met? What are the themes? What are the causes?

There is a reason the occupations began on Wall Street in New York City, and a reason why rather than all flock there, we are standing up in our towns across the country to say the same thing – let’s have a conversation, what is it like for you being alive in this time of global crisis? These conversations, general assemblies, open forums seem to me to be an expression of active hope – a thread slowing sewing itself throughout the frayed seems of our society which says:

“…wait a minute – I am not alone – you are suffering too – whoa – your story has similar roots as mine with a different storyline – hmmm…..we are tired of being controlled by forces beyond our control, which seem to make choices based off greed, not our best interests, profits for the very few with the illusion that finite natural resources are somehow infinite. We are no longer willing to trade our creativity, intelligence, bodies, minds and hearts for a daily grind that is still not going anywhere. We are in debt, bankrupt, lost our homes, have been deployed too many times, need a job, sunk in student debt, and more. Mountaintops are being blown up in Appalachia and the valleys filled in so that coal can be sold in China and India while the water supply for half of the United States is irrevocably polluted. The political forces out there seem interested in maintaining some sort of status quo that has forgotten us – all of us, left wing, right wing, whatever…. It feels overwhelming. It makes me angry. I feel despair. Before I saw this mobilization I was overcome with cynicism, depression, anxiety….etc.”

So these general assemblies are somewhat long and rambling meetings which use a lot of consensus jargon we often use in organizing here, a sort of sub-cultural lingo, with the intention of creating space for everyone to be heard. I don’t know how long the openness will continue, it is hard to sustain and I personally have plenty of doses of my own skepticism, yet I believe in  it too because I believe in the power of listening and the power of trusting solutions to arise from a collective, and I deeply believe in the intelligence in open systems which knows that there is room for everybody.

At the same time, this is a fragile and important moment to pay attention to because it could go oh so many ways, and seems to be going every which way at once. What is needed more than ever is open-mindedness, open-heartedness, and expansiveness. We have a choice when conditions get tough to get smaller and tighter or more open and flexible. One leads to a great unraveling into even more scarcity, alienation, isolation and tightness, and the other a great turning toward a more life affirming society. Which do you want?

Before answering, think about this: which you are willing to help create?

[Part 2 coming soon…]

Bodhisattvas in the Trenches

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In honor of Vesak Day (the day that commemorates the Buddha’s birth), I thought I’d share the stories of three “bodhisattvas in the trenches” who are doing good work around the world. A deep bow to all of them for the dedication and their practice, in the service of liberating all beings.

Beth Goldring is an American Zen nun who founded Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project in 2000.  Beth works closely with her Cambodian staff to ensure that AIDS patients with little to no resources are able to have access medical and pastoral care.

The Project has made a tremendous difference to many people, serving a caseload of about 400 patients. They’ve provided transportation, food, financial support, and have even built houses and repaired water systems.

Even with all that, though, as Beth writes, “the essential point of our work is chaplaincy: helping people realize that the Buddha’s compassion is already fully present, even and especially in the midst of their suffering.” The team visits the sick, offers ceremonies for the dead and dying, and also provide massage, Reiki and healing touch.


Katie Loncke is a young woman in the San Francisco Bay Area who is exploring the edge where dharma meets community organizing. She works closely with the Faithful Fools, an interfaith community center addressing poverty and homelessness in San Francisco. And she’s also an active member of the East Bay Solidarity Network, a mutual support network of workers and tenants who use collective direct action to stand up to exploitative bosses and landlords.

Katie brings a radical, feminist, Marxist analysis to the work. In her writing on her blog, shes grapples with tough questions and wonders “…whether and where there is room for compassion within direct actions that make a target uncomfortable — or ‘harm’ them (major scare-quotes) economically.”

Katie goes on to write: “I believe it’s possible to speak and act very forcefully against a perpetrator (I’m experimenting with saying ‘perpetrator,’ rather than ‘enemy,’ to guard against the typically dehumanizing crystallization of enemyism, and to invoke the work of radical anti-sexual-violence communities that seek to transform both behaviors and systems) while still maintaining compassion for them.”


Sarah Vesaki-Phillips studied closely with Joanna Macy before heading out on her own to support communities in the Appalachians as they struggled with the devastating practice of mountain-top removal by coal mining companies.

Sarah has been pioneering the field of Eco-Chaplaincy (along with members of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program that I support) which she describes as “a form of inter-religious and secular ‘spiritual’ support for people engaged in environmental and social justice work to help prevent burn-out and inspire and sustain long-term vision.”

Sarah bases her approach in Joanna’s “The Work That Re-Connects” to support local people in organizing to end mountain-top removal and restore pride in “mountain culture.”

Sarah’s next project is to join a 60-mile march in West Virginia this June, commemorating the 1921 Miner’s March when over 12,000 coal miners converged to recognize the United Mine Workers of America. Sarah writes, “we are marching, again, in the steps of those brave miners to draw national attention to the atrocity of the current conditions for workers and the environment.”


And finally, a tip of the hat to the Tzu Chi volunteers in the Southeast U.S. After the April 16 tornadoes that touched down in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, Tzu Chi volunteers prepared breakfast for families still living in the tornado-struck area with nowhere else to go. They distributed blankets, packs of daily necessities, and large bags of food to the local residents. Tzu Chi is a Buddhist-based international humanitarian organization who have been doing good work since 1966.

If you know of other “bodhisattvas in the trenches,” people embodying the vision and purpose of socially engaged Buddhism, I’d love to hear about them to feature in the future.


If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

Quote of the Week: Joanna Macy

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This week’s quote comes from Buddhist scholar and eco-philosopher Joanna Macy.

Joanna is the author of a number of wonderful books, including World as Lover, World as Self, and Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. I was delighted to learn that Joanna is working on a new book, “The Gift of Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy” with Chris Johnstone, a British physician.

You can find this quote on Joanna’s website,, from the section on “Engaged Buddhism”:

…Everything we do impinges on all beings. The way you are with your child is a political act, and the products you buy and your efforts to recycle are part of it too. So is meditation–just trying to stay aware is a task of tremendous importance. We are trying to be present to ourselves and each other) in a way that can save our planet. Saving life on this planet includes developing a strong, caring connection with future generations; for, in the Dharma of co-arising, we are here to sustain one another over great distances of space and time.

The Dharma wheel, as it turns now, also tells us this: that we don’t have to invent or construct our connections. They already exist. We already and indissolubly belong to each other, for this is the nature of life. So, even in our haste and hurry and occasional discouragement, we belong to each other. We can rest in that knowing, and stop and breathe, and let that breath connect us with the still center of the turning wheel.

More on Japan: Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh

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ZIZO-BOSATU(KSITIGARBHA Bodhisatva) wood colou...

Jizo Bodhisattva / Image via Wikipedia

This past week, both Joanna Macy and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh have written some beautiful words in response to the crisis in Japan. Each of them helps us to remember the larger context of this disaster, and of our lives and practice.

First, the letter from Joanna, who is no stranger to the dangers of nuclear power and radiation. In 1992, she spent time with the people  of Novozybkyov, a village about 100 miles from Chernobyl. Joanna and her late husband, Fran Macy, have been dedicated to the cause of nuclear disarmament and guardianship for many years.

Dear Ones,

In this hour of anguish we reach out to our Japanese colleagues and all beings of that noble and stricken land.  As our hearts unite in prayer for them, we experience our own non-separation from the immeasurable suffering inflicted by the successive earthquakes and tsunamis, and by the nuclear catastrophe these have triggered.

Having just begun the last week of my three-month retreat, I break silence to give voice to my solidarity with you all.  By speaking to you, I remind myself of what we can remember in this time of grief and fear.

It helps me to remember what I learned in Novozybkov with survivors of Chernobyl: that is that there are two basic responses to massive collective trauma.  One response is to let it destroy our trust in life and in each other, plummeting us into division, blame and despair.  The other is to let the shared cataclysm strengthen us into greater solidarity, and deepen our knowledge of our mutual belonging in the web of life. Your communications are evidence already of that second response.  Indeed the Work That Reconnects has been preparing us for it.

We remember to breathe.  As we have practiced, we breathe through the reports as we hear and the images of disaster. This helps us simply take in what is happening, and not be blocked by horror or the desire to fix or flee.

We also breathe with those who are caught up in this tragedy, in the intensity of panic, shock, and loss. Feel how this breathing-with helps your heart-mind fearlessly and tenderly embrace them.

You see, if we understand and accept the Great Unraveling, we can let it break us open to greater realizations of our innate solidarity.  That this realization in itself is a kind of “enlightenment” has been brought home to me in my retreat by two great teachers of Japan.

One is the 13th century Zen master Dogen.  He illumines our connections with the ancestors and the future ones, so that we can experience these connections in the immediate present moment.  So does the other figure, the archetypal bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, who is beloved in Japan, where he/she is known as Bodhisattva Jizo, with images .everywhere  Both of them help us realize that we are not alone in this moment of time, but surrounded by past and future generations ready to help.  We who inhabit the present can do what they cannot: that is to make choices and take action/  But the past and future ones are right at our side with support and guidance.

Also, to hold steady and open in this anguished time, try the Spiral of the Work That Reconnects. As I take in the catastrophe in Japan, the Spiral serves to ground my heart-mind, and widen its dimensions.  It brings gratitude for all those at work to bring support and clear reporting.  It helps me honor the heartbreak, to simply open to it and let it reveals our true nature and mutual belonging. It shows me how solidarity can move us forward, and offer us practical, immediate steps to alleviate suffering and enact safe, sustainable, and sane energy policies. An obvious urgency is to stop US Government subsidies and loan guarantees to nuclear industries, including bills that are before Congress now.

As radiation from Fukushima spreads, I know that protection of self and family is on our minds.  I’m asking Anne to append here two kinds of information: about health measures, and some links to breaking news from Japan. See our page dedicated to this issue:


And here is the letter from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Dear Friends in Japan,

As we contemplate the great number of people who have died in this tragedy, we may feel very strongly that we ourselves, in some part or manner, also have died.

The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. And the human species and the planet Earth are one body. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body.

An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: we can live in such a way that they continue, beautifully, in us.

Here in France and at our practice centers all over the world, our bothers and sisters will continue to chant for you, sending you the energy of peace, healing and protection. Our prayers are with you.

Thich Nhat Hanh


If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to visit my other website: The Liberated Life Project — a personal transformation blog with a social conscience.

Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism

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I’ve referred to the “Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism” a couple of time in previous posts on this blog, and I’ve finally dug it up to share it with all of you. If you click on the graphic above, it should open up in a separate window with slightly higher resolution.

Some background on this mandala: It was inspired by a gathering of a number of Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapter leaders in 2003. Everyone shared the kinds of activities that their chapters had organized, and (just as importantly) how they organized these events, what qualities were important for them in the process of organizing.

I was the designated note-taker at this meeting. After digesting all I had heard that day, this mandala is what came to me as a way to summarize what everyone had shared. I realized that the types of activities or events seemed to cluster into four categories (the four quadrants of the circle above), and then I included the six qualities that people consistently named as important parts of the process around the outside of the circle. Later on, I added an archetype into each of the quadrants (e.g. “the healer”) as that was an interesting dimension to play with.

Here are some examples of the kinds of activities you might find in each of the four quadrants:

“Triage”: Stopping Harmful Actions

• Participating in vigils, rallies, and marches against the war on Iraq

• Sitting in meditation vigil at state-sanctioned executions (death penalty)

• Writing letters or calling legislators to call a stop to harmful environmental practice

• Nonviolent civil disobedience and non-cooperation with life-destructive policies

Healing Polarities and Divisions

• Reconciliation or listening circles with groups that have “opposing” points of view

• Practicing Nonviolent Communication

• Addressing issues of racism, classism, sexism, etc. within our sanghas and in society

Building Cultures of Peace

• Working to establish a Department of Peace in the U.S. government

• Work with children and young people

• Building creative arts communities

• Monastic communities that are based on principles of sustainability and non-harming

• Practice simple, sustainable living, individually and in community

Education and Organizing, from a Dharma Perspective

• Empowering ourselves and others with information about a specific issue, such as the minimum wage (economic injustice)

• Inquiry/Analysis. Ask questions: “Why is this situation like this? Who is suffering from this injustice? How can we change it? Who has the power to change it? How can we leverage that power?”

• Designing actions intended to shift power and encouraging others to participate in the change process –provide contact information for legislators, suggested letters to write, invitations to vigils, etc.

The mandala was also influenced by Joanna Macy’s writings about the “Great Turning.” In fact, you’ll see some parallels in this mandala. Macy says that in order for us to navigate the transition from an industrial society to a life-sustaining society, three actions are needed: 1) Holding Actions (similar to the “Triage” in this mandala), 2) Alternative Structures and Analyses (similar to the “Building Cultures of Peace”) and a 3) Shift in Consciousness and Spiritual Awakening (not really a separate part of this mandala, but woven in throughout).

One of the most important points about this mandala is that it is completely interconnected. All four quadrants of action are equally necessary, equally valuable. No one’s work is more important than someone else.

Over the years, this mandala has been a very helpful tool to work with, both with individuals and groups, as we think through how we’ve engaged with social, political, and environmental issues. I’m wondering what thoughts you have about this mandala. Do you notice that your activism has tended to be in one of these quadrants more than others? Do you feel out of balance in any way as you engage with the world? Are the six qualities present in your life and activism? What else might be missing from the mandala?

I consider this mandala a work in progress, so I’d love to hear your feedback on it and any ways that you find it useful.

Quote of the Week: Joanna Macy

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Rev. Danny Fisher is my blogging inspiration, and I always appreciate the great quotes he puts up on his site. So, riffing off of Danny, introducing a new feature: quote of the week!

This is one of my favorites from Joanna Macy, Buddhist scholar and activist, and author of a number of books including World as Love, World as Self, and Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World.

“It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up–release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast true nature.”

Socially Engaged Buddhism Beyond Labels

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Let’s start with some definitions. What is it that we’re talking about? That ubiquitous term ‘engaged Buddhism’ is actually a couple of different things. At least a couple of different things, but I’ll just focus on two:

  • Engaged Buddhism
  • Socially Engaged Buddhism

There’s a quote from the late Rev. Willliam Sloane Coffin that I find very helpful in distinguishing between the two:

“Justice is at the heart of religious faith. It’s not something that is tacked on. And justice is not charity. Charity tries to alleviate the effects of injustice. Justice tries to eliminate the causes of injustice. Charity is a personal disposition. Justice is public policy. What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice.” (from an interview with PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly)

So here’s my theory (others, like Ken Jones, have articulated it in a similar way). I see engaged Buddhism as akin to what Rev Coffin is talking about when he talks about charity. On a very basic level, it’s pretty hard to avoid being an engaged Buddhist. We see suffering, and we respond. There are many Buddhist groups that are organized in this way, like the Tzu Chi Foundation — doing relief work, addressing immediate needs such as hunger, medical needs, etc.

Socially engaged Buddhism, in contrast, is about looking at the structures that lie underneath these forms of suffering, and then responding to those structures. At the root of the hunger and homelessness, for example, are systems of economic and racial injustice (to name just a couple) where some people have the odds stacked against them. This doesn’t mean that people can’t transcend their conditions; of course they can. But it’s a system that contributes to a vast amount of suffering, and the big question is: does it need to be that way?

I’m not sure that anyone has ever surpassed the eloquence and wisdom captured in just a few lines in the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

The way I see it, socially engaged Buddhism comes from just about that same place. There are lots of things we can’t change, and we can practice with those conditions to find some liberation from suffering. But there are lots of things we can change – things which we’ve often been taught to think are ‘just the way it is’ and unchangeable. And then our practice is to work to change those things.

There are complexities beyond this, of course… how do we know that the change we seek will not cause more suffering? Let’s leave that side road for another time, just noting them as important to keep in mind for right now.

Political, cultural, and social conditions are often harder to see than the individual suffering that’s right in front of us, and we live in a culture that thinks psychologically rather than systemically. We are encouraged to see individuals rather than systems.

Because everything appears to starts with the individual, this makes some sense. When we say things, “I must be peaceful in myself before I can take action for peace in the world,” of course that is true. And yet, it can also limit us. Because we’ll probably never be entirely at peace within ourselves. So are we supposed to wait forever before getting involved with the world? And if we let the suffering of the world permeate into our hearts, as I hope we would if we are practicing dharma, then to some degree that suffering may upset our peace of mind. As it should.

As we advance in practice we may be able to hold all those realities and the suffering within them with equanimity, but for many of us this is more of a challenge. I like what Joanna Macy said about this dilemma:

“It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up—release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast true nature.”

So, having gone down some of these byways and offered my own distinction between engaged Buddhism and socially engaged Buddhism, I like this definition from Donald Rothberg and Hozan Alan Senauke:

Socially engaged Buddhism is a dharma practice that flows from the understanding of the complete yet complicated interdependence of all life. It is the practice of the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. It is to know that the liberation of ourselves and the liberation of others are inseparable. It is to transform ourselves as we transform all our relationships and our larger society. It is work at times from the inside out and at times from the outside in, depending on the needs and conditions. It is to see the world through the eye of the Dharma and to respond emphatically and actively with compassion.  (from Turning Wheel, Summer-Fall – 2008)

If I were to extend this definition, I would propose that any form of socially engaged Buddhism has to include the following elements:

  1. A ferocious devotion to a lack of dogma or doctrine. So, we don’t get to be smugly ‘right’ about anything, even things like ‘war is bad, peace is good.’
  2. A deep understanding of the truth of impermanence in all things.
  3. A willingness to take an honest look at our motives for action, and to not act from self-serving motives. The ‘self’ is a construct that has gotten us into lots of trouble.
  4. And paradoxically, a recognition that we need to include ourselves in our sphere of enlightenment, as Kobin Chino says (by way of Roshi Bernie Glassman).

That lays down the foundation for the topics we’ll look at on this blog, and the kinds of other thinkers who will be featured. Enjoy the ride!

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